"I've Worked All Day. It's Not Fair!"
"The last will be first, and the first last.” Matthew 19: 30; 20: 16.
“The apostle Peter answered and said to Him (Jesus), ‘See we have left all and followed you. Therefore what shall we have?’” Matthew 19:27.
“And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius. And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them and said, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?”Matthew 20: 9-15.
The first verse (Matthew 19:27) quoted above is a statement made by the apostle Peter, a devoted and obedient follower of Jesus. The second quote (Matthew 20: 9-15) describes complaining laborers who felt they were not adequately compensated. To both of these Jesus said, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” This statement, though difficult to understand, basically expresses God’s right of ownership and decision-making over our lives as His servants.
“Hey, it’s not fair!”
The workers who worked all day complained because those who worked only the last hour were paid first and received the same amount as those who worked all day. The reverse order of payment and the equal pay for unequal work hours exposed the hearts of those who worked longest. Their grumbling was rooted in self-centeredness, wrong motives, and blindness to the heart and character of the landowner. His kindness to the late-starters was being interpreted as mistreatment of the all-day workers. This illustrates man’s tendency to despise the riches of God’s goodness when it is poured out on others. In our short-sightedness we become envious and think we are deprived.
God’s economy is not limited to this temporary, natural age. His rewards are both now and in eternity. When we in our short-sighted self-centeredness judge God’s goodness and wisdom only by what we see in time (the temporal, natural perspective) we do seriously err. Men’s hearts are exposed when they judge God by the “wage and hour” mentality. Such attitudes reflect self-centeredness, lack of spiritual perception, and blindness to Jesus Himself and to the Sovereignty of God.
“But I was being good when they were being bad!”
I had friends and acquaintances who were still rebellious teenagers when I was seeking God and preaching the gospel as a young boy in high school and throughout my college years. These men now have significant and thriving ministries while I sit in relative obscurity and in what has at times felt like relative failure. I had to deal with a subtle jealousy regarding this, but have come to the place where I genuinely rejoice in God’s blessing over the lives and ministries of these friends and acquaintances.
It is God’s prerogative to bless whom He chooses based on His wisdom and purpose. He is Sovereign ruler over the temporal affairs of man. He chooses and apportions, and we must trust Him with how He disposes and rewards. We must rejoice when God blesses others. We praise the Lord when we are “hidden in His quiver” while others are being used in the spotlight.
Peter: “Lord, what about that man?”
Jesus: “What is that to you? You follow me.” John 21: 21-22
We should not make value judgments about ourselves by comparing our lot to that of others, or by judging our place in God according to how He treats other people. This leads to pride and arrogance if our lot is better, or to envy and jealousy if our lot is worse. In any case, it leads to erroneous thinking. God deals with each of us according to His own purpose and wisdom. He does not operate on the “fairness” principal. He does according to what is right and necessary according to what He has purposed in Himself.
Worker: “But I have borne the burden and the heat of the day!”
Jesus: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong.” Matthew 20: 12-13.
It is common for people to feel they have not received adequate compensation or reward for their labor and efforts. We must remember that our labor is not in vain and that our just reward is with Him (Isaiah 49: 3-4). It might also be good to ask ourselves if we really have born the heat of the day? I may have worked hard, but still it is a matter of perspective. To the lazy man every way is hard, and to the self-centered person every task is an inconvenience and sacrifice. Often the ones who complain the hardest are those who do the least.
When we have done everything we should do, still we have done no more than was our duty to do in our relationship with God. Do we think we have given so much? What do we have that we did not receive? We have nothing that did not first originate with God. He is the source, the means, and the end. He is the center- not us. And we owe Him everything, including our lives.
“Take what is yours and go your way.” Matthew 20: 15.
The complaining workers received “what was theirs” but were sent on their way. They walked away not knowing the future blessings they had forfeited, and they were of no further use to the Master. They were grasping for wages rather than looking to the rewards that come with the Master’s favor. Instead of focusing on the meager and limited portion we think we have earned, we should humbly serve and look to the loving Master who plans to pour on us by grace a bountiful supply from the riches of His storehouse, a supply greater than anything we could ever earn. We do not want Jesus to “give us what is ours” and then tell us to “go our way.” We do not want Him to “give us our request, but send leanness to our soul.” (Psalm 106: 13-14). It would be the greatest loss and the cause of the deep regret to take what is “mine” and yet lose Him and the blessing of intimate fellowship with Him. He rewards faith and obedience. He Himself is our exceeding great reward.
“I have served all these years, and you never did that for me!” (Luke 15: 29.
We should rejoice when others are blessed. God does not detract from nor rob from me when He shows goodness to others. It is an evil heart that assumes God’s blessing on others represents something taken from me. The elder brother in the prodigal son story was not motivated by love. He was envious, and was probably afraid that the Father would take away some of his inheritance and give it to the prodigal brother who had returned empty-handed after wasting his own. In his comments on these verses Bob Mumford said, “The Father has unlimited wealth and increase. He would be able to restore the prodigal brother without ‘taking away’ from the elder brother.” But in any case, we should be willing to sit in a humble station and rejoice when God blesses someone we think does not deserve it? It is not proper to begrudge God’s benevolence shown to others or to think we deserve it more. We should not forget what the Father said to the Elder brother. “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours” (Luke 15: 31).
“They complained…” Matthew 20: 11.
The workers acted like they were part of a union organized to protect themselves against management. God is the Sovereign Master who actually loves us. We don’t have to negotiate for our benefits. He has already given us all things in Christ. We serve Him knowing that in His great love, knowledge, and wisdom He is acting for His purpose and our good. It is our self-centeredness that makes us complain and charge Him with inequity. When we make ourselves the center (instead of God and His purpose), we darken and distort our discernment, our interpretation, and our understanding.
“Friend, I am doing you no wrong.” Mat. 20:13
God’s ways are infinitely higher than ours. He acts according to His will and purpose which are based on His perfect and complete knowledge and upon His incomprehensible wisdom and goodness. We humans are foolish to charge Him with evil. The prophet Daniel said that “the Most High rules in the kingdom of men and gives it to whomever He pleases.” (Daniel 4: 25). The apostle Paul said so eloquently, “Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God. How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” (Rom 11: 33). We should daily join the biblical writers who said, “Praise the Lord, for He is good.”